7 leadership lessons from former commanders of America's most elite warriors
The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) oversees the American military units that take on incredibly difficult and unconventional missions.
These units contain some of the most elite warriors in the world.
And though each unit in SOCOM has its own culture, certain approaches are universal.
From their writings and from our interviews with former Navy SEAL commanders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, former Delta Force commander going by the pseudonym Dalton Fury, and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal — who led the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) branch of SOCOM before leading American forces in the war in Afghanistan — Business Insider noticed recurring lessons on leadership that could apply in any type of career.
We’ve collected those lessons here.
A team’s success falls entirely on its leader
After returning from duty as a SEAL platoon commander in the 2006 battle of Ramadi in Iraq, Leif Babin became a SEAL training instructor. It was during one “Hell Week” of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training (BUD/S) in 2008 that he saw an incredible example of leadership at work, he wrote in his 2015 book “Extreme Ownership,” cowritten with Jocko Willink.
Babin and his fellow instructors split the SEAL candidates into teams of seven for a string of boat races, which required the teams to run with a 200-pound raft held aloft and then placed into the ocean for a short course. After several races, Boat Crew II was almost guaranteed to win and Boat Crew VI was almost guaranteed to come in last place.
The most senior instructor decided to swap the team leaders of Crews II and VI. To Babin’s surprise, Crew II performed well but never reached first, and Crew VI won nearly every race.
“When the leader of Boat Crew II took charge of Boat Crew VI … [h]e didn’t wait for others to solve his boat crew’s problems,” Babin wrote. “Rather than tolerate their bickering and infighting, he pulled the team together and focused their collective efforts on the single specific goal of winning the race.”
What it all comes down to, Babin writes, is “whether or not your team succeeds or fails is all on you.”
Manage your boss
Dalton Fury spent more than 20 years in the US Army as a Ranger and then as a Delta Force operator.
Fury is the pseudonym he uses for his writing, since his time in Delta Force, one of the most secretive and elite forces in the US, has required him to conceal his true identity.
He sent us a collection of leadership lessons he learned in Delta Force and Rangers
Fury writes that part of being an effective leader is knowing not only how to instill confidence in your subordinates, but in your superior.
He explains that there are times in special operations where plan A isn’t going exactly as planned, and if the leadership in charge of the mission’s commander gets nervous, the entire thing could turn into a disaster. It’s why, Fury says, leaders need to assure their own leaders in advance that they are prepared for whatever unexpected situations arise.
Mitigate risk as much as possible
Whoever’s in charge can’t waste time excessively contemplating a scenario without making a decision. But when it’s time to make that decision, all risk must be mitigated as much as possible.
Willink and Babin both write about situations in Ramadi in which delaying an attack until every detail about a target was clarified, even when it frustrated other units they were working with, resulted in avoiding tragic friendly fire.
Fury says it is the leader’s responsibility to “see the forest through the trees” and anticipate as many scenarios in a mission as possible, in order to always have a plan ready to go with the least risky choice available.
Have a set of standards that guide decisions
“There are a set of standards that you know are right,”McChrystal told Business Insider. “They may look and feel different at times, but those standards should guide you.”
He said that there was once a time when he was mulling over a weighty decision with a command sergeant major, and he was questioning what his values were telling him was right. They worked over the decision for six months.
“And at the end of that decision, I thought I had consensus, and I announced this decision, and I looked to him for approval and he said, ‘It was the right decision. But you could have made it six months ago.'”
“The reality is we often delay making decisions when we already know the right answer and we’re trying somehow to prevent ourselves from having to make that step because we’re trying to mitigate all the reaction we’ll get to it,” he said. “But sometimes you just have to cut bait and do it.”
Be the alpha, but don’t be overbearing
As a SEAL officer, Willink needed to be aggressive. (“Some may even accuse me of hyper-aggression,” he said.) But he differentiated being a powerful presence to his SEAL team from being an intimidating figure.
He wrote that, “I did my utmost to ensure that everyone below me in the chain of command felt comfortable approaching me with concerns, ideas, thoughts, and even disagreements.”
“That being said,” he added, “my subordinates also knew that if they wanted to complain about the hard work and relentless push to accomplish the mission I expected of them, they best take those thoughts elsewhere.”
As Fury put it: “Play well with others — but remain the alpha.”
Be calm without being robotic
Willink says that while leaders who lose their tempers lose respect, they also can’t establish a relationship with their team if they never expression anger, sadness, or frustration.
“People do not follow robots,” he writes.
For Fury, this comes when a leader is humble. “And at that moment when you apply this secret, realizing you are not one of the action heroes — more Clark Kent than Superman — you have met the first standard for actually leading high-performance teams,” he wrote.
Trust your subordinates
Fury says that in the military, commanders establish relationships with officers they can trust to act on their own and come through in a crisis.
For example, Fury writes, “Year after year, commander to commander, maverick warrior … Jim ‘Serpico’ Reese, a stand-out Ranger and Delta officer, quite possibly would have made [Ulysses S.] Grant appear wanting when it came to working through chaos, calming nerves, and demanding the best out of subordinates.”
It’s this trust in each other that makes elite units so special.
When talking about the Navy SEALs in particular, McChrystal wrote in his book, “Team of Teams,” he said it is their intense, selfless teamwork from the top down that allows them to process any challenge with “near telepathy.”
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